May 31, 2015
There is hardly a more familiar text in the Hebrew Bible than this one for today, Isaiah 6:1-8, the most famous call of a prophet in the Bible. It is regularly offered in lectionaries on Trinity Sunday, apparently due to the thrice-repeated cry of "Holy" as shouted by the Seraphim, flying about YHWH in the temple in Jerusalem. If that is so, it seems a most far-fetched way to squeeze a text from the Hebrew Bible into a yearly Christian celebration. Perhaps the reason for its inclusion has to do more with the call of the prophet and that prophet's willingness to answer that call, at least as the text is usually construed.
It is no secret that much of the worship you and I lead and participate in derives its shape from Isaiah 6. It begins with a hymn of praise (Is. 6:3), moves to an admission of sin (Is. 6:5), followed by a forgiveness of that sin (Is. 6:7), concluded by a call to service and positive response (Is. 6:8). That is the basic shell of what we do as we worship, a fact that suggests this order of worship is very old indeed. I find it rather exciting that worship this past Sunday (I was preaching two very different sorts of services) modeled what Isaiah himself may have experienced some 2750 years ago in the first Jerusalem temple. Perhaps there really is nothing new under the sun!
I readily admit to knowing very little about the origins of Trinity Sunday. Most obviously, it is a day when we Christians celebrate that mysterious theological designation of our God as three-pronged, not three-godded, but appearing in three different though related guises: Father, Son, Holy Spirit or any number of other ways that attempt to avoid the sexism of the first figure, like Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
Let me be very honest with you: I find little of real value for me in such formulations. I well know that many over the years have risked disgrace, humiliation, and even death over the acceptance or rejection of this doctrine, but frankly the whole squabble bores me. There, I have now trodden on any number of ecclesiastical toes! Won't be the first time, I assure you, nor the last. Okay, there is my small fig to the Trinity. If you choose to build your worship around it, I leave you to it. I am rather more interested in the way that Isaiah responds to the call of YHWH, and by response I mean how that response moves well beyond verse 8.
I can, of course, already opine what the last hymn of your service this Sunday will be: the well-nigh ubiquitous "Here I am, Lord," a 1981 Dan Schutte composition, #593 in the United Methodist Hymnal, and, I have little doubt, found in any hymnal you may possess compiled after that date. This hymn has become immensely popular in the churches of countless denominations and is an obvious response to this passage. And because the passage is invariably stopped at verse 8, the hymn captures much of the joy and hope of answering the call of God on one's life. Indeed, can one imagine an ordination service void of this hymn?
I have no intention of raining on Schutte's parade or dampening your enthusiasm for his work. I have sung and appreciated the hymn for all the years of its existence, having heard it and sung it not long after its initial composition nearly thirty-five years ago. But Isaiah 6:8 is not the end of this passage about the call of the prophet. That call ends in verse 13, and that is an important observation.
If one reads Isaiah 6:1-8 a particularly crucial matter is not explained at all. Listen again to verse 8. "I heard the voice of my lord saying, 'Whom shall I send and who will go for us?'. (Ah! Maybe that plural in the text ignites the Trinitarian speculation!) And I said, 'Here I am; send me.'" That seems clear enough; God calls, and the prophet willingly responds. But is something not missing? Why am I being called at all? Where am I to go and for what reason? Answers to those questions do not appear until verses 9ff. And those answers are a different kettle of fish altogether.
"God said, 'Go and say to this people: Listen intently but do not perceive; look very carefully, but do not understand. Make this people's mind dull, clog up their ears, cloud over their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and perceive with their minds, then turn and are healed.'" I beg your pardon? The content of Isaiah's call is that he preach in such a way that his hearers will not be able to comprehend just what their God has in mind for them! Now I readily grant that many of my own sermons have had that very effect on my hearers, but I surely did not intend for those sermons to obfuscate my congregations and I surely did not imagine that the God who called me to ministry precisely intended for my sermons to lead people away from the truth! But that is exactly what God's call to Isaiah appears to demand that he do! Astonishing!